Understanding Teenager’s Brain

by Ms Shwu Tiinn
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Teens’ Brain Development

Transitioning from childhood to adolescent can be a big change for both parents and adolescents. Although I’m at my twenties now,I could still remember the depressing situations in my teens.
Little difference in thoughts and opinions can become the source of the fight between me and my parents: from whether or not to have curfews to what’s appropriate to wear when going out.

The emotional outburst between two parties and resorting to shutting oneself off from each other formed the awkward silence in the house. I am lucky, that my parents are constantly finding ways to communicate with me, but some may just give up from communicating. I become curious when I reminisce how I think and act when I was a teenager.

What could be the possible reasons?

Teenagers’ brain works quite differently from an adult

Neurological researchers had revealed that a teenager’s brain can work quite differently from an adult. This is because the brain of a teen is “still developing”. Adults use the front part of the brain – prefrontal cortex (PFC) and teenagers use back part of the brain – amygdala. PFC is responsible for the logical thinking, self-control, planning and decision making whereas amygdala is responsible for emotions, memory and survival instinct. When processing information and making decisions, adults would think in a more logical way whereas teens tend to follow their instincts and feelings. In other words, when teens have pleasurable experiences, they will act to get the pleasurable experiences; when teens have unpleasant experiences, they will act to escape/avoid from these experiences.

For instance, teens feel exciting and rewarding when playing video/games (eg. LOL, PUBG), hence they would more likely to spend time on gaming. In opposite, studying can be tiring and less rewarding, hence they would try to avoid studying like school elopement, copy peer’s answers for assignments and fake sick leave for school.

What are the effects?

  • Self-control

Teens tend to have less self-control compare to adults. They did not have the mature ability to consider long term consequences yet and thus, they are prone to getting immediate rewards. Continued with the above example, teens get immediate excitement and feel the rush in adrenaline during gaming. As a result, they would spend more time in the activity. Besides, they would spend their allowances/lend money/request from parents to upgrade their game characters. If the gaming time is not restricted, their behaviours can affect their mental and physical health (eg. feeling tired and eyesight affected); academics (eg. lower grades); and overspending. In the other hand, adults know how to limit their gaming time (eg. during working breaks, free time) and know how to control their game expenses (eg. budget for games).

  • Emotional regulation

Teens are said to always having the “emotional roller coaster”. They can be happy in the last minute and then feeling sad in the next minute. This is because the teen’s brain develops more with teens having different kind of experiences, which emotions would be intensified in this process. Thus, a teen’s mood tends to shift from one to another in a short period of time.

However, researches showed that teens are having difficulty to “put oneself in people’s shoes”. They consider things from the point of themselves, which is often viewed as “self-centred”.  Besides, they are less good at understanding other’s emotions comparing to adults. When teens were presented with frightened faces, they recognized the emotions as angry or sad rather than being anxious and fearful.

As a result, miscommunication and misunderstanding may happen easily, with the “emotional roller coaster” going on and they misread people’s emotions and think from their own shoes. For instance, parents are worried why teens came back home at the late hour. They asked the teens “Why are you so late to be back?” when teens arrived home. Teens misread parents’ emotions as angry instead of worry and thought that 11 pm is common for a teen to arrive home. Quickly, their emotions shifted: from happy and exciting when hanging out to angry and frustrated when back home. This may lead to them starting to quarrel with parents or refuse to interact with them.

Will there be a better way for parents to interact with their teens?

  • Think from the teen’s eyes

Parents are in awkward positions when their children are growing up to be adolescents. Teens may have their secrets which they are not willing to share with their parents, and thus making the interaction between parents – teens to become difficult. To make the interaction happen, parents have to put themselves in the teens’ perspectives instead. They have to realize that teens have less awareness for long term consequences yet, hence even though teen’s thoughts are irrational (at times), what they are experiencing in them are true. For instance, the teen is worry about how to fit into the circle more. Instead of thinking that what their worry is childish, or you can naturally make friends, parents should think that it is important for the teen to get along well with his/her peers so that the teen can adapt to the school environment quicker. Hence, parents can demonstrate to teen how to make the conversation better and try the same activities as their peers to have the same interests to share with.

  • Firm with the rules

Teens have to learn that even though they have grown up, there are still some family rules that cannot be broken such as curfews and house chores. If teens want to access to activities that they like (eg. hanging out, group activities, meeting their idols), they should follow the rules. Parents would only provide them with the financial and transport required upon rules being obeyed. Hence, rather than having fights with the teens, letting consequences do the talk is easier for teens to learn what and what not to do.

  •  Reinforce the appropriate behaviour

Compare to punishment, teens are more prone to being rewarded. When teens had shown appropriate behaviours like following family rules for the whole week, studying on their own, talk with parents in a calmer manner, parents can reinforce their behaviours with things they enjoyed (always remember the reward should be what teens like to do whether is activity or items). Also, parents should explain clearly what the rewards are for so that teens learn that these rewards are not free.

Written by Lam Hoi Mun (MSc Applied Behaviour Analysis)

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